Steampunk is a growing sub-genre of science fiction that combines a fascination with technology and scientific innovation with, usually, a late 19th-century setting. As science fiction generally does, Steampunk explores the “what ifs” of innovations and their effects on society. In Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense, edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers, seventeen contemporary authors offer stories that share a fascination with scientific exploration, occult books, lonesome graves, and tormented spirits. All of these stories have the feel and tone of the wonderfully creepy ghost tales of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.
As in any collection of stories, each reader will find his or her own favorites. I found “Music, when soft voices die” by Peter S. Beagle particularly chilling. Beagle tells the tale of a medical student whose experiments in electric generation go terribly awry, leaving him haunted by a voice of infinite sorrow. As in all of Beagle’s writing, the characters leap off the page and into your heart and mind.
Another fascinating tale is “The curious case of the moondawn daffodils murder” by Garth Nix, a superb writer of eerie fiction. Here, a second cousin of Sherlock Holmes arrives at a police station to help solve a murder, attended by his “keeper.” Sir Magnus Holmes (an echo perhaps of M. R. James’s Count Magnus?) is currently an inmate of an insane asylum, though allowed out if accompanied. The story involves dark spells, enchanted objects, and a mysterious society bent on evil. The ending here is dark and almost Lovecraft-ian.
Two stories, “Why I was hanged” and “The jade woman of the luminous star” demonstrate the dangers of becoming involved in the spirit world, as both protagonists end up accused of murder (which may or may not be the case). Other tales involve grave-robbing in Egypt with dire results, revenants haunting the scene of their transgressions, and an ill-thought-out attempt at creating an army of golems. All of the stories create a strong feeling of unease without ever being explicitly gory or visceral. The horror here is psychological. Of particular interest is a short essay by the author after each story that gives its origins and sheds some light on the tale.
Check the WRL catalog for Ghosts by Gaslight